In most traditional slasher films there is one girl who makes it to the end. One girl who lives long enough to escape the masked monster or maybe even defeat him. This girl is traditionally known as the Final Girl. Perhaps the most famous Final Girl is Halloween's Laurie Strode. All hell breaks loose in Haddonfield, Illinois when masked psychopath Michael Myers escapes from the loony bin and sets his sights on a group of teenagers, particularly one Laurie Strode. After a dangerous encounter, Laurie emerges victorious... Sort of.
Final Girls are praised in horror film culture as strong representations of women and feminism. They are resilient, brave, and powerful, and they wouldn't make it to the end if they were male, right? Wrong on all counts. Sorry to say it, lady horror fans, but Laurie Strode is not your role model.
Laurie Strode, Halloween (1978)
Jamie Lee Curtis' iconic turn as Laurie Strode in John Carpenter's classic Halloween is offender number one. While some argue that she's not virginal in the traditional sense (she's bookish, so it's her choice to abstain), Laurie can still be considered quite virtuous. When a female character is crafted in such a chaste manner, it removes ownership of sexuality. Laurie does not possess her own sexuality and is therefore sexless. This is where slasher films always enter murky symbolic waters, anyway. The girls who put out always get offed first, while the virgins live to the end. How is this a positive representation of femininity? Sexuality is not something to be ashamed of, nor should it equate to being slutty. By simply living longer than her promiscuous counterparts, Laurie already skews a little sexist.
In the end, Laurie takes a wire coat hanger (between this and the laundry room, there's much ado about laundry in this film, a task traditionally undertaken by women) and stabs Michael in the eye. Michael drops his knife, Laurie retrieves it and stabs him again. Does this look like a woman who knows what she's doing with a knife? Does this look like a woman in control?
Not at all. Laurie just barely survives her encounter with Michael, and she does so out of luck, mostly. Dr. Loomis -- a man -- comes to her rescue and kills Michael for her. If anything, Laurie Strode is a skilled babysitter. She keeps calm and takes charge in emergency situations, as evidenced in how quickly she gets Tommy out of the house.
Carpenter tries to make Laurie androgynous by dressing her boyishly, styling her without make-up, and downplaying her looks in general. But these attempts at portraying her as a horror heroine are shallow and weak. In fact, like most Final Girls, Laurie spends most of her screen time (three films total) running frantically from Michael and asking men for help. It isn't until H20 that she actually becomes proactive in fighting her attacker, at which point an argument can be made that she's merely doing so out of motherly instinct, not empowerment.
Laurie Strode, Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) and H2 (2009)
More egregious than Carpenter's original is Rob Zombie's version of Laurie Strode. In Rob Zombie's Halloween, Strode is once again abstinent while her friends are blatantly promiscuous. Some of the undertones of Carpenter's original are played more obviously here, though; Laurie is the mother figure of the group and her friends point it out to her regularly. She agrees to babysit so Annie can have sex with her boyfriend, and the viewer assumes that this makes Laurie noble. Michael's attack on her becomes a series of scenes with Laurie being chased by the masked killer. The key to understanding the sexism of Laurie's character is that she never confronts Michael. Michael always chases her, but she never plays offense and takes initiative against him. She is defenseless and weak. In a scene that could redeem her, Michael tries to show Laurie that they are related, but Laurie doesn't understand. It's a frustrating moment that does little more than make Laurie look like a moronic child. Again, Dr. Loomis (and in this version, all the cops in town) comes to the rescue at the last minute.
In H2, Laurie somehow manages to become even more pitiful. In this outing, she and best friend Annie are coping with life post-Halloween. This go-round, Annie becomes the mother figure, staying at home and doting on her father, preparing meals and caring for the well-being of others. Laurie just falls apart. Her coping skills include giant posters of serial killers and partying. Laurie discovers that she is Michael Myers' sister mid-film, making for an incredibly poor display of female empowerment in the last half. A stronger woman would use that information to her advantage in defeating the antagonist, but Laurie Strode whines and laments, pouts and cries, and like an obnoxious child she ignores her problems and chases them away with alcohol. Rob Zombie's Laurie is a manic and irrational girl who reinforces negative female stereotypes. She's vacuous and helpless, and when faced with conflict or threat, she crumbles.
At film's end we find Laurie hallucinating visions of her mother and a young Michael. Michael is shot by Sheriff Brackett and falls on some farming equipment, and it's only when he becomes defenseless that Laurie openly attacks him. Her attack feels as though it comes from a place of mental distress, not strength. The film closes with Laurie in a mental institution, once again supporting the idea that women are mentally incapable of dealing with stressful and mentally challenging situations.
As is the case with most Final Girls, Laurie Strode manages to survive not by being clever or being a strong, brave woman, but by dumb luck. She happens upon a coat hanger or bumps into the right man at the right time, but she never actively seeks to confront her antagonist. Final Girls typically end the film in a state of severe mental distress, unable to cope with what they've endured. Women only get two outcomes: death or insanity, and if we get away virtually unscathed, we must have had help from a man.
I suggest we destroy the Final Girl archetype. It's tired and offensive, and just plain lazy. If you need a woman to run around bra-less for 90 minutes, embrace that necessity honestly, but please don't patronize me. If you want to speak positively to women, here are some fantastic female role models and true heroines of horror:
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Alien Anthology
Ripley is the ultimate anti-Laurie Strode. What I perhaps find most empowering about her is that she owns her sexuality in a way that isn't obvious or salacious. She is strong and bold, and seeing her in her underwear at the end of Alien is akin to seeing a man with his shirt off. It just doesn't mean anything. For four films she faces off against giant aliens, makes tough decisions, and never runs away from her problems. She also proves that cat ladies can kick ass and be mentally stable.
Marie (Cécile de France), Haute Tension (2003)
Marie is incredibly smart and tough. When the intruder enters the idyllic country estate where she is vacationing with her best friend Alexia, Marie springs into action, quickly and thoroughly removing any trace of her existence in the home so the intruder won't know she's there. The moment where she wipes the moisture out of the sink is so deliberate and clever that you just know this is a woman who isn't going down without a fight. She spends the rest of the film pursuing the man who took her friend.
Beth (Lauren German), Hostel Part II (2007)
When she and her friends get into trouble with a cult of wealthy and powerful killers, it's Beth that comes out victorious. She spends most of the film corralling her dim-witted friends and trying to keep them out of trouble with lecherous men. When she comes face to face with death in the end, Beth uses her femininity, wits and power to buy her way out. Beth is intelligent, resourceful, and downright ballsy (no pun intended).
Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza), The Descent (2005)
Neil Marshall's film follows a group of women who love to challenge themselves in extreme, athletic ways. When they enter an uncharted cave and discover an ancient species of cave-dweller, they must ban together to get out alive. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Juno are the clear ringleaders of the group as they fight and tear their way out. Juno makes some tough calls that ultimately prove to be her undoing, thanks to a personal grudge and some cattiness from Sarah. But there's a lesson to be learned there, ladies: put aside your petty issues until you get out of the giant monster-infested cave.
Read more of Britt's writing on horror at BrutalAsHell.com.